Head of Science and Natural History James Hyslop admires a spectacular fusion of art, craftsmanship and science created by a master glassmaker, offered in Peter Petrou: Tales of the Unexpected in London on 30 January
In 1853, the world’s first public aquarium opened its doors, in London. It reflected a Victorian fascination for the zoological — Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published six years later.
Natural history museums were popping up across the Western world, too, and taxidermy became standard practice. This allowed (dead) animals to be put on permanent display — although, given that they lost their colour quite quickly when pickled, this was not an option with invertebrate sea creatures. Here was a gap in the market that Dresden-based father and son, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka (1857-1939), would adroitly fill.
Born in 1822 into a family of glassmakers, Leopold became captivated by jellyfish and other marine species he saw on a trip to the Azores in the mid-1850s. On his return home, he began creating biological models made out of glass — sculptures renowned for both their beauty and their scientific accuracy.
‘The Blaschkas were absolute masters of glasswork,’ says James Hyslop, Head of the Science and Natural History department at Christie’s in London. ‘To this day we’ve not been able to match their artistry and skill. It’s amazing.’
On 30 January, three of Leopold Blaschka’s models were offered at Christie’s London as part of the Peter Petrou: Tales of the Unexpected sale: two of jellyfish and one, perhaps the standout, of a Portuguese man o’ war.
‘The medium is certainly suitable for rendering such creatures,’ Hyslop continues. ‘They have a translucence, which matches that of glass. But that’s to take nothing away from Leopold’s technical feat. It is his texture I find extraordinary: the way he achieved a gelatinous character that’s so lifelike and compelling.’
In time, Leopold would be joined in the family business by Rudolf, and the Blaschkas are thought to have made 10,000 marine sculptures in all, satisfying demand from natural history museums and other educational institutions across the globe. (The three works coming to auction were all acquired by the Science Museum in London in 1877.)
In certain cases, the Blaschkas worked from live specimens that they’d had shipped to them, but they relied for inspiration mainly on the illustrated books of contemporary biologist Ernst Haeckel. The pair are often praised for the richness of their colour — and in the case of the Portuguese man o’ war, it’s a bluish tint, rendered through a combination of stained and painted glass.
‘These are the first Blaschka sculptures I’ve handled in more than 10 years at Christie’s’ — James Hyslop
‘The tentacles are probably my favourite feature, though,’ says Hyslop. ‘In real life, these extend underwater [beneath the main body, which floats on the sea’s surface]. The way Leopold captured their long, squiggly form, in glass, is simply stunning.’
A Portuguese man o’ war’s tentacles can, in some cases, reach 150 feet in length — around 30 feet is average — and these contain venom that’s used to fatally paralyse prey. (For the record, the creature is closely related to the jellyfish, and takes its name from an apparent resemblance to old battleships from Portugal at full sail.)
Rudolf Blaschka died in 1939, and as the 20th century progressed — and other scientific tools such as underwater photography and video became available — Blaschka models fell into disuse. The man o’ war coming to auction in London was deaccessioned by the Science Museum in the mid-1920s.
In the past few years, however, there has been an upsurge of interest in the Blaschkas again. In 2016 Corning Museum of Glass, in New York State, held a major exhibition of its marine models, called Fragile Legacy.
According to Hyslop, such a trajectory makes sense. ‘In 1877, these works were at the cutting edge of education and technology, with fine craftsmanship to show what marine creatures looked like. Now they’re popular again, but for a different reason — as objects of historical importance and great beauty.’
The Tales of the Unexpected auction featured 150 works, all from the eclectic collection of celebrated London dealer, Peter Petrou. Pieces hailed from a wide range of cultures and periods, including a silver spice box from Mughal India; an ivory-inlaid, rosewood and padauk cabinet that belonged to Queen Maria de Gloria II of Portugal; and a silver incense burner from South America in the form of independence hero Simón Bolívar on horseback.
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For Hyslop, however, the three marine models take some beating. ‘These are the first Blaschka sculptures I’ve handled in more than 10 years at Christie’s. Their sculptures tended to be fragile, and there’s a very low survival rate among those not part of museum collections. I actually know of only one other jellyfish or Portuguese man o’ war by the Blaschkas in private hands.
‘Their work straddles the divide between art and science with an excellence comparable in the 19th century with John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. These really are special lots.’